Vanek's Olympic dream realized

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 16, 2013 - 6:48 AM

While leading the NHL in scoring, the former Gopher was tuned in as homeland Austria qualified for the Sochi Games.

Anybody who didn't realize how much Thomas Vanek had emotionally vested in Sunday's Austria-Germany hockey game can just look through the Twitter feed of the former Gophers star.

First, the Buffalo Sabres forward asked @T_Vanek26 followers to send him a link to the live stream so he could watch, then he exhibited anxiety throughout by either ripping the refs or tweeting support like, "1-1 20minutes to go!! Come on Boys!! #letsgoAustria."

In the end, "Congrats to #TeamAustria! Unbelievable! I'm sooo proud of the guys! #ProudAustrian."

Austria actually lost in overtime.

But because they didn't lose in regulation, Vanek's native country qualified for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. That means as long as NHL players are allowed to participate in their fifth consecutive Olympic Games as expected -- talks between the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation have begun --Vanek's Olympic dream will come true.

"As a European kid growing up and then you come over here, you realize the Olympics are a big deal. You can't deny that," said Vanek, 29. "For myself and Austria to be part of that, it will be special. It will help grow the game in Austria and show kids you can have success in the sport and move on to bigger and better things."

It's been quite the first quarter of the season for the Stillwater resident, who was MVP of the Frozen Four in 2003 when the Gophers won the national title. After Friday's victory over the Boston Bruins, Vanek is leading the NHL with 11 goals and 23 points in 14 games. He had two five-point games 11 days apart.

Vanek, a two-time 40-goal scorer, had a career-high 43 goals and 84 points in 82 games in 2006-07. After that season, the Oilers signed him to a seven-year, $50 million offer sheet -- one the Sabres matched.

That placed him under the spotlight. He has sometimes found himself in veteran coach Lindy Ruff's doghouse for defensive mishaps. But he's kept performing at an ultra-high level.

Vanek left Austria for the United States at age 14 and played three years in the USHL for Sioux Falls. He credits his scorching start to the fun he had playing five weeks in Austria during the lockout. He lived with his parents and scored 15 points in 11 games for his hometown team, Graz.

"Missing the playoffs, it's not a fun way to end the year. This brought the fun back," Vanek said. "I had no idea how much the game had grown there and how much of a following I had. Fans came out [in droves], and not just in Graz, but every other rink I played in.

"Even though it is our job, at the same time it's a game we love. I'm feeling good about my game right now."

Vanek is quick to point out, though, that this is a team sport, and the Sabres, who have missed the playoffs in three of the past five years, were last in the Eastern Conference with a 5-8-1 record before Friday.

"I look at our team and we should be a lot better than what we've shown," he said.

Vanek's heart remains in Minnesota. He lives here during the offseason and sponsors seven AAA hockey teams called the 26ers. Nate MacKinnon, a potential No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft who played for Shattuck-St. Mary's in 2010-11, played on one.

"We have a team in every corner of Minneapolis and I try to go on the ice with every team," he said. "I used to love doing this with the Don Lucia and Doug Woog camps. I enjoy being on the ice with the younger kids and giving pointers, and it's something I can see myself doing a lot after I'm done playing."

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